Report Laments Health of NASA’s Aging Science Labs

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NASA’s laboratory capabilities at six research centers across the nation have declined over the past five years, due in large part to inadequate funding for equipment, maintenance and facilities upgrades, according to a congressionally mandated study released May 11 by the U.S. National Research Council (NRC).

“The fundamental research community at NASA has been severely impacted by the budget reductions that are responsible for this decrease in laboratory capabilities, and as a result NASA’s ability to support even NASA’s future goals is in serious jeopardy,” according to the report, “Capabilities for the Future: An Assessment of NASA Laboratories for Basic Research.”

In his 2011 budget request for NASA, U.S. President Barack Obama proposed spending $4.9 billion over the next five years for “very early stage and game-changing approaches” to developing transformative space technologies, according to 2011 NASA budget documents. But as the Obama administration seeks to renew NASA’s investment in basic science and technology efforts, laboratory equipment and facilities needed to conduct such research are in need of maintenance and upgrades that have gone unfunded over the past five years or more, according to the report.

Budget reductions for fundamental research initiatives over the past several years have led to inadequate equipment and support, while scientists defer research and spend the bulk of their time writing grants in search of money to maintain laboratory equipment and facilities rather than engaged in scientific inquiry, the study found. In addition, the report asserts some science and technology efforts are diverted as researchers seek funding from outside NASA “for work that may not be completely consistent with NASA’s goals.”

Although NASA categorizes the overall condition of its facilities, including its research centers, as “fairly good,” the report found that deferred maintenance over the past five years has grown substantially, from $1.77 billion to $2.46 billion from 2004 to 2009, “presenting a staggering repair and maintenance bill for the future.”

In addition to providing sufficient equipment and support services at the NASA labs, the report recommends the agency find a solution to deferred maintenance demands and implement so-called “health monitoring” of equipment to make the best use of existing resources. NASA should also consider implementing a strategy to retain technical knowledge as it increasingly relies on contractors to fill the ranks of its work force. In addition, the NRC asks that more resources be given to NASA’s aeronautics laboratories to keep the agency competitive with international research institutions in Europe and Asia.